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Tough times await Nikhil Sen

Subir Roy | August 16, 2003

Nikhil Sen, Britannia COOAt 44, Nikhil Sen, chief operating officer of Britannia, is one of the youngest, if not the youngest, top dog of a listed Indian blue chip.

The catch is that while discharging the functions and bearing the legal responsibilities of a managing director, he is not called so and remains chief operating officer.

This underlines the tumultuous circumstances under which he has come to take up the reins of the company.

It also points to the fact that though Sen does wear the crown by whatever name, the head that lies beneath it must bear considerable unease till the successor to Sunil Alagh is definitively chosen. Sen is in but not yet home and dry.

Ever since Sunil Alagh was unceremoniously removed from the position of managing director of Britannia a couple of months ago, Sen has had to bear intense public attention.

This has not been easy for him because he likes to stay away from the limelight, a quality which may be as great an asset for him as its absence contributed to the undoing of his predecessor.

The speculation was whether he, Alagh's protégé---made COO a little over a year ago when Alagh was still very much running the show---would go the way of Alagh in a corporate bloodbath.

Or would he be able to earn the support of the board so as to step into the shoes for which he was so obviously in line? That question has been only tentatively answered.

That Sen was being groomed for bigger responsibilities was clear from the fact that he became COO after being senior vice-president since 1997 of the mainline bakery business of Britannia.

The bakery business, always the mainstay of Britannia, became even more so when the company recently hived off its promising dairy business.

Under Sen, and of course Alagh, the bakery business made substantial progress, increased both market share and margins, and made significant brand acquisitions like Kwality and Nutrine.

Although Sen is absolutely within the Indian corporate mainstream, he belongs to that dwindling tribe that spends its entire career in a single company.

He went to St Joseph's North Point, Darjeeling, read history at St Stephen's, Delhi, and joined Britannia as a management trainee in 1980. Batchmates remember him as a keen sportsman and a 'regular bloke.'

Sen, like Britannia, has firm roots in Kolkata and its gentry. He is sibling to one-time super model Nandini Sen and wife Chinky is sibling to screen goddess Sharmila Tagore.

In Bangalore, Sen and wife are very sociable and gregarious, though within a closely knit circle. They entertain a lot but never lavishly.

A distinctive aspect is that they are serious devotees of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, purveyor of the Art of Living way of life. Perhaps that has given them the calm to wade through troubled times.

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